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One of the most extravagantly admired of all Lincoln documents is the letter to the Widow Bixby, written on November 21, 1864. James G. Randall and Richard N. Current declared that it "stands with the Gettysburg address as a masterpiece in the English language."  Another Lincoln biographer, David A. Anderson, claimed that "Lincoln's three greatest writings"—the Gettysburg Address, the letter to Mrs. Bixby, and the Second Inaugural Address—are the compositions "upon which assessment of his literary achievement must ultimately be based."  A New Yorker thought the Bixby letter superior to the Gettysburg Address: "It is cleaner English, better constructed and shows a heartfull of emotion and sympathy."  Henry Watterson called it "the most sublime letter ever penned by the hand of man." 
But not everyone agrees that Lincoln actually wrote the letter. One historian observed that "the furious controversies that have raged" around its authorship threatened "to become as important in the annals of this country as le affair Dreyfus was in France, with this difference—no scandal, though a lot of dirt and deception, attaches to it; no duels, except verbal ones, have been fought over it; and no one ... has been imprisoned because of it." Here is the text of that much-lauded missive:
The manuscript of this document has not been seen since November 24, 1864, when it was delivered to Mrs. Bixby, who evidently did not preserve it. The widow's granddaughter told a journalist that Mrs. Bixby "was secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause ... and had 'little good to say of President Lincoln.' " She added, "I remember so clearly my surprise when my mother told me how Mrs. Bixby resented" the letter.  The widow's great-grandson similarly recounted that "Mrs. Bixby, an ardent Southern sympathizer, originally from Richmond, Virginia, destroyed it [the letter from Lincoln] shortly after receipt without realizing its value." 
Some respectable Bostonians looked askance at the widow. Sarah Cabot Wheelwright, who at the age of twenty-six became acquainted with her, described her in unflattering terms: "Another woman to whom I gave work," she recalled forty years after the event, "was a Mrs. Bixby, who had been recommended to me by Mrs. Charles Paine, as being very deserving."
The Boston police would not have been surprised to learn that Mrs. Bixby lied about her sons. In fact, she had lost only two of them in the war. Of the three survivors, one had deserted to the enemy, another may have done so, and the third was honorably discharged. The famous letter of condolence was a response to an appeal from John A. Andrew, governor of Massachusetts. Mrs. Bixby had presented William Schouler, adjutant general of Massachusetts, documents indicating that five of her sons had died while serving in the Union Army. Schouler then praised Mrs. Bixby to Governor Andrew as "the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman I have yet seen." The governor, in turn, told the authorities in Washington that the case of the Widow Bixby was "so remarkable that I really wish a letter might be written her by the President of the United States, taking notice of a noble mother of five dead heroes so well deserved." As all the world knows, the White House honored the request. 
Schouler delivered the letter, which has not been seen since. In the absence of a manuscript, doubts about its authorship have been raised. One of the first to do so was William E. Barton in his 1926 volume, A Beautiful Blunder. Cryptically, Barton said that "from a Page [End Page 61] very high source comes a suggestion that there is an unpublished mystery with respect to this matter. It can mean, as I judge, nothing else than that John Hay wrote the letter." (The "high source" was Nicholas Murray Butler, as the correspondence between the two men in the Barton Papers at the University of Chicago makes clear.) Barton doubted Hay's authorship in part because no one in the Hay family ever heard such a claim and also because "versatile and gifted as John Hay was, he could not have written that letter. It is Lincoln's own, and there is no other letter just like it anywhere."
Seven years later Rollo Ogden of the New York Times asserted that the Bixby letter "was doubtless signed by Lincoln and is certainly characteristic of his language; but it was actually written by John Hay." When queried about his source, Ogden replied, "I know of no scrap of documentary evidence, but Mr. Hay in his lifetime told more than one person that he really wrote the letter which Lincoln signed. Among others he confided this fact to ... W. C. Brownell, who told me of it at the time. Naturally, Mr. Hay took pains never publicly to claim the authorship, and, I presume, left nothing written which set the matter straight." 
In addition to Brownell, Hay informed Walter Hines Page that he had composed the Bixby letter. The year after the New York Times editorial appeared, the following letter by Rev. G. A. Jackson was published:
Theodore Roosevelt admired the Bixby letter greatly and had a framed photograph of it in one of the guest rooms at the White House. John Morley occupied this room while the guest of President Roosevelt in 1904. His attention was attracted to the Bixby letter, of which he had never heard, and he too admired it greatly.
One morning during his visit to Washington, Morley called on John Hay, then Secretary of State, whose house was on the opposite side of Lafayette Square from the White House. Morley expressed to Hay his great admiration for the Bixby letter, to which Hay listened with a quizzical look upon his face. After a brief silence, John Hay told Morley that he had himself written the Bixby letter.... Hay asked Morley to treat this information as strictly confidential until after his [Hay's] death. Morley did so, and told me that he had never repeated it to any one until Page [End Page 63] he told it to me during a quiet talk in London at the Athenaeum on July 9, 1912. He then asked me, in my turn, to preserve the confidence of his until he, Morley, should be no longer living. 
Louis A. Coolidge, a Washington correspondent for eastern newspapers, also confirmed the story when he "emphatically" stated "that President Lincoln had nothing to do with the Bixby letter." Coolidge covered Washington from 1891 to 1904 and in that latter year served as the literary director of the Republican National Committee. The informant may well have been Hay. Coolidge had been private secretary to Hay's friend Henry Cabot Lodge.
Spencer Eddy, Hay's personal secretary, told his sister that Hay had actually written the Bixby letter. She assumed that Hay himself or Henry Adams was the source of her brother's information.
Lending further credence to the story is Hay's 1866 statement to William Herndon that Lincoln "wrote very few letters. He did not read one in fifty that he received. At first we tried to bring them to his notice, but at last he gave the whole thing over to me, and signed without reading them the letters I wrote in his name."
Most Lincoln specialists, following Barton's example, have resisted the notion that the sublime Bixby letter was Hay's creation. In 1943, Roy P. Basler, editor-to-be of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, dismissed Walter Hines Page's recollection as a "matter of British tea-table gossip" and Hay's letter to Herndon as in part "inadequate, inaccurate, and incorrect." John Morley's statement to Nicholas Murray Butler, in Basler's view, was ambiguous: When Hay said he "wrote" the Bixby letter, he probably meant only that the lithographed reproduction hanging in the White House guest room was based on a forgery and that Hay had simply taken down the words dictated by Lincoln. (Basler was unaware of the testimony of W. C. Brownell and Louis A. Coolidge.)
In conclusion, Basler argued that "the internal evidence of style seems to mark the letter as Lincoln's. ... If the student will read aloud the best of Lincoln's lyrical passages in the 'Farewell Address,' 'Gettysburg Address,' or 'Second Inaugural Address' and then read aloud the 'Letter to Mrs. Bixby,' he will find it exceedingly difficult Page [End Page 64] to believe that anyone other than Lincoln composed such sentences as: 'I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.' " Basler then clinched the argument by inviting readers to "procure a copy of Thayer's Life and Letters of John Hay and read a few of Hay's compositions."
Basler's argument on stylistic grounds has two flaws. First, Hay would obviously try to imitate the president's voice while composing the Bixby letter, and Hay was a gifted literary mimic. Second, unlike Lincoln, Hay often employed the word beguile. In the spring of 1860 he described some bibulous Democrats, singling out for special comment "those whom the charm of strychnine circe had beguiled."  On March 19, 1861, he wrote Anna Ridgely, "I was beguiled into the shop today and my eyes fell on these mother-of-pearl trinkets." Two months later, in a pseudonymous dispatch to the Springfield Daily State Journal, Hay described troops who "eat their rations with trimmings beguiled from neighboring cabbage-patches."  Alluding to reports that Mason and Slidell had slipped through the Union blockade in October 1861, Hay told readers of the Missouri Republican, "It is probable that they have not escaped, and this item was hatched to beguile the blockading fleet into laxity at another point."  In another dispatch to that St. Louis newspaper, Hay the following month said, "I was talking, when this subject of Fremont beguiled me away, of the intimate relations between McClellan and the Administration." Early in 1862 he reported disapprovingly to the same journal that Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge "fled by night ... into the beguiling embraces of a mad and ruinous rebellion."  In February 1862 he told readers of the Missouri Republican that "Lander has been beguiling the tedium of the rainy days of Page [End Page 65] last week by taking Romney and frightening into precipitate flight the queer, blundering, thick-shelled, honest, dunce, General Jackson." Describing Norfolk, Virginia, after Union forces had captured it, Hay bemoaned the disappearance of the "Southern beauty, that in Norfolk's flush days, before the deluded old town went sillily off after the beguiling Lothario of rebellion." In that same dispatch, Hay ridiculed "the mad leap which these infatuated people took into the arms of the beguiling ruin that tempted them." 
He also used the word twice in his 1861 obituary of Edward D. Baker: "one by one they sunk beneath the insidious beguiling of the malarious atmosphere," and, "His geniality beguiled as much as his courage impressed." 
Other constructions in the Bixby letter sound more like Hay than Lincoln, such as, "But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation." In 1858 Hay wrote to a friend, "I cannot refrain from availing myself of the opportunity presented by your letter of expressing to you my gratitude for your great kindness." It has been suggested that Hay was probably the author of the Bixby letter because, unlike Lincoln, he regularly used the terms "Heavenly father," "Republic," and "gloriously."
Moreover, the tone of the Bixby letter resembles that used in Hay's message of condolence to a relative in 1864: "I will not intrude upon your sorrow further than to express my deep sympathy for your great loss and my prayer that a merciful God may give you that consolation which mortal love is too weak to offer." This is far different from Lincoln's letter of consolation to Fanny McCulloch: Page [End Page 66]
It might be objected that the tone of the Bixby letter does in fact resemble that in Lincoln's letter of consolation to the parents of Elmer E. Ellsworth:
In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one's country, and of bright hopes for one's self and friends, have rarely been so suddenly dashed, as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men, was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military, constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent, in that department, I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages, and my engrossing engagements, would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane, or an intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably, and, in the end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them, no less than for himself.
In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to Page [End Page 67] the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.
May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.
David Rankin Barbee argued that Hay, not Lincoln, wrote the letter to the Ellsworths.  That may seem farfetched, especially because the autograph in Lincoln's hand survives. But it is entirely possible that Hay helped draft it, for he was an extremely close friend of Ellsworth's, and a passage from the letter to the Ellsworths ("May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power") strongly resembles a passage in Hay's letter to Manning Leonard ("my prayer that a merciful God may give you that consolation which mortal love is too weak to offer"). Also similar are sentiments expressed to Leonard—"I will not intrude upon your sorrow"—and to the Ellsworths—"In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow."
Three years after Basler's article appeared, F. Lauriston Bullard, chief editorial writer of the Boston Herald and head of the Lincoln Group of Boston, published Abraham Lincoln and the Widow Bixby, which denied that Hay had composed the letter. Bullard pointed to several considerations that made him doubt the claims of Hay's authorship: Hay was not exactly in his right mind on the day when he spoke with John Morley about the Bixby letter; Hay never informed Richard Watson Gilder that he wrote the document; and Hay in 1904 told William E. Chandler that "the letter of Mr. Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby is genuine." Bullard concluded: "Gifted and versatile though John Hay was, we do not think ... the young man ... could have written the letter to Mrs. Bixby." Walter Hines Page's testimony "is not of value," Bullard declared, and the New York Times editorial writer's account was "no more conclusive" than Page's. Bullard also cited a letter he had received from one of Hay's biographers, Tyler Dennett, stating that although "Hay is not remembered by members of his family ever to have denied the authorship, it seems not to have been remembered by anyone except John Morley that he ever claimed it." Dennett added that he did "not regard the Butler-Morley statement as conclusive."
In an extended review of Bullard's volume, William H. Townsend praised the author and belittled "the whisperings, insinuations and vague, indefinite recollections" of Page, Brownell, Coolidge, and Page [End Page 68] Morley. Such "remote and nebulous hearsay evidence," Townsend declared, "could not even get in the back door of a courtroom or any other place where facts are analyzed and testimony weighed with care and impartiality." 
Challenges to Basler and Bullard were promptly issued by Sherman Day Wakefield, author of How Lincoln Became President, and David Rankin Barbee, a journalist and amateur historian with a prodigious appetite for original research.  Barbee accepted the Morley and Page stories at face value and argued that Lincoln would never have used the term "our Heavenly father." Wakefield made several points, perhaps the most telling of which is his analysis of Bullard's coup de grace, the Hay letter to William E. Chandler calling the Bixby letter "genuine." All Hay meant to imply, according to Wakefield (and Bullard seems to concede this vital point), is that the letter was not a fake. A "genuine" Lincoln letter, in Hay's view, could be one that a secretary wrote and that the president then signed. That is all that Wakefield and Barbee—as well as Morley, Page, Brownell, and Coolidge—meant to suggest: that Hay composed the document, to which Lincoln affixed his signature.
Wakefield also argued that Hay could well have written such a profound letter. Like Bullard, Wakefield consulted Tyler Dennett, who replied, "Hay was able at that age to write such a letter. Some of his very best letters date from an early period."
In 1953 Basler seemingly ended the dispute by including the Bixby letter in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln with the following annotation: "The controversy over the claim that John Hay composed this letter has somewhat abated, with the claim remaining unproved." Two years later Lincoln the President: The Last Full Measure, by James G. Randall and Richard N. Current, appeared, endorsing Basler's conclusion. In their five pages on the Bixby letter, Randall and Current failed to mention the testimony of Page, Brownell, or Coolidge. They ignored Hay's 1866 letter to Herndon in which he asserted that Lincoln "signed without reading them the letters I wrote in his name." The authors dismissed Butler's account of Morley's recollection as "flimsy statements," arguing that "careful his- Page [End Page 69] torians" agree that "reminiscence is not enough, and it must be repeated that the idea of Hay's authorship rests upon indirectly reported conversations." The Bixby letter, they concluded, "is sincere and heart-to-heart" and "a fine example of Lincoln's personal tact." 
Thus matters have stood for decades. But as William E. Barton warned in 1925, "One never knows out of what dusty pigeonhole will emerge some letter or document that casts an entirely new light on such a problem." Such a document was donated to Brown University in the late 1950s as part of John Hay's papers: a scrapbook Hay kept of newspaper clippings, mostly from the late 1860s and early 1870s. Hay's handwriting identifies some of their sources. The overwhelming bulk of the items pasted into the 110 pages are Hay's own poems, along with reviews, notices, and commentary on his books, lectures, and poetry. Two pages contain clippings primarily from the Civil War: "Ye Armie Gambolier," a poem written by Hay in South Carolina in April 1863; "A Paper of Pins of J. D.," signed J. H.; an article announcing Hay's appointment as colonel by General David Hunter in 1863; an 1865 notice of Hay's imminent departure for Paris to assume the duties of the secretary of the American legation; four more Hay poems ("A New Nursery Ballad," "Boudoir Prophecies," "The Advance Guard," and "God's Vengeance"); and the Bixby letter. 
A similar scrapbook reposes in the Hay Papers at the Library of Congress. Primarily filled with clippings of Hay's anonymous and pseudonymous journalism from 1860 to 1865, it too contains the letter to the Widow Bixby as well as a few others signed by the president, including one to John Phillips, written the same day as the Bixby letter. Page [End Page 70]
It is difficult to understand why Hay would have pasted the Bixby letter in those scrapbooks, full of his own literary creations, unless he had composed it himself. Such evidence may not ultimately clinch the case, but when combined with other elements—Hay's statement to Herndon in 1866; the stylistic fingerprints of John Hay in the letter; and the reminiscences of Morley, Page, Coolidge, Brownell, and Eddy—Hay's scrapbooks suggest that it is highly likely that Hay, not Lincoln, is the true author of "the most beautiful letter ever written."
My conclusion, of course, does not affect Lincoln's literary reputation; the author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural will long command the world's admiration. As a journalist noted in 1925, "If under the merciless hand of investigation it should be shown that this remarkable document [the Bixby letter] was not only based upon misinformation but was not the composition of Lincoln himself, the letter to Mrs. Bixby would still remain.... 'One of the finest specimens of pure English extant.'" Rather than diminishing Lincoln, this new discovery should enhance the status of John Hay among literary critics and historians. Page [End Page 71]
- J. G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: The Last Full Measure, vol. 4 of Lincoln the President (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1955), 48–52.
- David A. Anderson, ed., The Literary Works of Abraham Lincoln (Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1970), vi. I am grateful to Gabor S. Boritt for calling this work to my attention.
- Dr. J. Herbert Claiborne to Isaac Markens, New York, Feb. 13, 14, Markens Papers, Jewish American Historical Society, Brandeis University.
- Quoted in Sherman Day Wakefield, "Did Lincoln Write the Bixby Letter?" Hobbies Magazine, Feb. 1939.
- David Rankin Barbee, "The Bixby Letter—Did Lincoln Write It?" typescript, David Rankin Barbee Papers, box 1, folder 8, Georgetown University.
- Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 8:116–17. (Hereafter cited as Collected Works.)
- Mrs. George M. Towser in the Providence Evening Bulletin, Aug. 12, 1925.
- Arthur March Bixby to the editor of the New York Sun, East Haven, Conn., Oct. 28, 1949, clipping collection, Lincoln Museum, Fort Wayne, Ind.
- George C. Shattuck, ed., "Sarah Cabot Wheelwright's Account of the Widow Bixby," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 75 (Jan.–Dec. 1963): 107–8. Shattuck reproduces this excerpt from "The Reminiscences of Sarah Cabot Wheelwright," dated April 20, 1904, a typed copy that he found in the papers of Mrs. Wheelwright's only child, Mary Cabot Wheelwright (1878–1958). Sarah Cabot Wheelwright (1835–1917) was the wife of Andrew Cunningham Wheelwright and the daughter of Samuel Cabot (1784–1863).
- See William E. Barton, A Beautiful Blunder: The True Story of Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Lydia A. Bixby (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926), and F. Lauriston Bullard, Abraham Lincoln and the Widow Bixby (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1946).
- Barton, A Beautiful Blunder, 62–63.
- "Authorship of Happy Sayings," [editorial], New York Times, May 14, 1933, sec. 4, p. 4, col. 4E; Bullard, Abraham Lincoln and the Widow Bixby, 108.
- E. V. Lucas, Post-Bag Diversions (London: Methuen, 1934), 132–33.
- Nicholas Murray Butler, Across the Busy Years: Recollections and Reflections, 2 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939–1940), 2:390–92.
- Bullard, Abraham Lincoln and the Widow Bixby, 109–10.
- Memo by Catherine Beveridge (widow of Albert J. Beveridge), July 22, 1949, Albert J. Beveridge Papers, Library of Congress.
- Hay to Herndon, Paris, Sept. 5, 1866, Hay Papers, Hay Library, Brown University.
- Basler, "Who Wrote the 'Letter to Mrs. Bixby'?" Lincoln Herald, Feb. 1943, 3–8.
- Clipping of Springfield correspondence by "Ecarte," June 13, 1860, Missouri Democrat, n.d., pasted in Hay Scrapbooks, vol. 55, Hay Papers, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as Hay Scrapbooks).
- Hay to Anna Ridgely, Washington, March 19, 1861, in Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, ed. Henry Adams, 3 vols. (printed but not published, 1908), 1:6.
- Washington correspondence by "Ecarte," May 15, 1861, Daily State Journal, May 20, 1861, p. 2, col. 4. The previous year Hay had written several dispatches to the Providence Journal signed "Ecarte."
- Clipping of Washington correspondence, Oct. 17, 1861, Missouri Republican, Oct. 22, 1861, p. 2, col. 5, in Hay Scrapbooks, vol. 54.
- Clipping of Washington correspondence, Nov. 4, 1861, Missouri Republican, Nov. 8, 1861, p. 2, col. 5, in Hay Scrapbooks, vol. 54.
- Missouri Republican, Jan. 14, 1862, p. 2, col. 3.
- Washington correspondence, Feb. 10, 1862, Missouri Republican, Feb. 14, 1862, p. 2, p. 1, col. 6, in Hay Scrapbooks, vol. 54.
- Clipping of Norfolk correspondence, June 18, 1862, Missouri Republican, June 25, 1862, p. 2, col. 4, in Hay Scrapbooks, vol. 54.
- "Colonel Baker," Harper's Magazine 24 (Dec. 1861): 105, 106.
- Hay to S. Weir Mitchell, Washington, Aug. 8, 1880, S. Weir Mitchell Papers, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Library of Congress.
- Hay to Lodge, Washington, Dec. 26, 1890, copy, Hay Papers, Library of Congress.
- Hay to Sarah Helen Power Whitman, Warsaw (Ill.), Dec. 15, 1858, ibid.
- Unidentified magazine article, Carl Sandburg Papers, Illinois Historical Survey, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I am grateful to Don E. Fehrenbacher of Stanford University for calling this to my attention.
- Hay to Manning Leonard, Washington, June 9, 1864, Hay Papers, Brown University.
- Collected Works, 6:16–17.
- Ibid., 4: 385–86; Barbee, "The Bixby Letter."
- Bullard, Lincoln and the Widow Bixby, 106–37.
- Townsend, "Bullard's Bixby Book," Lincoln Herald 48 (Oct. 1946): 2–10.
- See Wakefield: "Did Lincoln Write the Bixby Letter?"; "Who Wrote Lincoln's Letter to Mrs. Bixby?" Hobbies Magazine, Feb. 1941; Abraham Lincoln and the Bixby Letter (New York: n.p., 1948); Abraham Lincoln and the Widow Bixby (New York: n.p., 1947). See Barbee: "The Plain Truth about the Bixby Letter," Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine 26 (Jan. 1945): 149–70, "The Bixby Letter."
- Wakefield, Abraham Lincoln and the Bixby Letter, 17.
- Collected Works, 8:117.
- Randall and Current, Lincoln the President, 48–52.
- New York Times, Aug. 16, 1925.
- I am grateful to Jennifer Lee of the John Hay Library, who called my attention to that scrapbook.
- Hay Scrapbooks, vol. 54; these were among papers donated in 1952.
- Lincoln to John Phillips, Washington, Nov. 21, 1864: "I have heard of the incident at the polls in your town, in which you bore so honored a part, and I take the liberty of writing to you to express my personal gratitude for the compliment paid me by the suffrage of a citizen so venerable. "The example of such devotion to civic duties in one whose days have already extended an average life time beyond the Psalmist's limit, cannot but be valuable and fruitful. It is not for myself only, but for the country which you have in your sphere served so long and so well, that I thank you" (Collected Works, 8:118). It hardly strains credulity to believe that Hay wrote this routine letter. The other letters signed by Lincoln and pasted in the Library of Congress Scrapbooks are to L. B. Wyman (Dec. 11, 1861), F. B. Loomis (May 12, 1864), and to the New York Committee (Dec. 2, 1863).
- New York Sun, Aug. 6, 1925.